Friday, August 17, 2007

Jose Padilla Remade

“Paranoiac, surrealistic, dark, macabre, cynical, foreboding.”

These are the adjectives in a review of the 1962 movie “The Manchurian Candidate.” The film was remade in 2004. It played out in real life in Miami on August 16.

Set in the early 1950s after the Chinese had entered the Korean War, the movie is an exposition of the public’s macabre fascination about reports that the Soviets and Chinese Communists were developing methods of brainwashing humans and then, as on a tabula rasa, reprogramming them to commit horrific crimes – creating, if you will, a cadre of automata that, once set in motion, would stop at nothing to carry out their “program.” Worse, because these robotic victims would look and act “just like us,” they could re-enter society to await their instructions. And by the time officials realized (if they ever did) “who ” physically was responsible for a catastrophe, the deed would have been done and the perpetrator gone or dead just as his or her mind was "gone."

As it turned out, although unknown at the time, the U.S. government was “exploring” the same subject. But like other “sensitive” research projects in the “black worlds” of bio-medical and chemical substances, of spies and counter-spies, Washington’s interest – whether the work was done by or for the Central Intelligence Agency or the Pentagon – the programs were always presented as purely defensive, especially when an administration sought funding to initiate new lines of enquiry or to run covert operations aimed at learning what the Soviets and the Chinese communists were developing.

There were some skeptics. When from time to time doubts were expressed or questions were posed challenging the “defensive” intent of the U.S. work, the Pentagon would trot out its Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) program to make its case. This “experience” – “instruction” is too mild a term – was given to military personnel deemed to be most susceptible to capture by the enemy in the performance of their military mission – inter-continental bomber pilots, long range reconnaissance patrol and pathfinder personnel, and super-secret specialized units such as Navy SEALs and Delta Force.

“Surrealistic, dark, macabre, cynical, foreboding” – these terms, along with “illegal, sadistic, immoral,” and others conveying complete disregard for the basic rights that every human being possesses – describe the non-defensive applications to which the years of Pentagon and CIA “defensive” research have been put by the Bush administration in its “global war on terror.”

Americans see themselves always on the side of “right,” always acting for truth and justice. They also assume that their government will likewise, in the main, adhere to what is right. The reason that Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and the secret CIA prison system came as such a shock to many was the sheer extent of the Bush administration’s disregard for even the minimum standards of justice and humane treatment of prisoners and detainees as mandated in national statutes and international law – not to mention simple respect for another human being.

Now another name must be added to the list of those who were and may still be subjected to physical and mental torture in these prisons. Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen arrested in Chicago on May 8, 2002 by the FBI, depicted as the central figure in a plot to detonate a “radiological” bomb, was declared an “enemy combatant” by President Bush on June 9, 2002 so that the government could transfer Padilla to a navy brig where he was (according to the White House) beyond the jurisdiction of the U.S. civil courts. For 43 months, he languished in strict solitary confinement in a 9x7 foot cell whose windows were blackened to prevent sunlight entering his cell. The disorientation from this tactic was reinforced by random periods in which the cell was illuminated all the time or left unlit, and further reinforced by clanging noises as guards would open and close automated doors on other cells for various time periods.

Almost two years passed – until March 3, 2004 – before Padilla’s lawyers saw their client again. By this time, Padilla was a broken person. He did not want to see his lawyers and refused to cooperate in preparing his defense. Another two years passed as both sides file motions and prepare themselves for an eventual trial. In October 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the president could not hold an American citizen in military custody indefinitely. The government transferred Padilla to a Miami civilian prison and subsequently charged him on January 6, 2007 with conspiracy to murder U.S. persons overseas and with providing material support to terrorist organizations overseas. The trial started in May, and on August 16, a jury found Padilla and two others guilty.

Also on August 16, Dr. Angela Hegarty, a forensic psychiatrist who, at the invitation of Padilla’s attorneys, interviewed him for a total of 22 hours last year, spoke on the “Democracy Now” radio program about her encounters with the prisoner. Hegarty found his reasoning, thinking, and memory powers impaired – conditions that are directly associated with and are the result of “extreme isolation for prolonged periods of time.”

Dr. Hegarty’s conclusion is chilling: “What happened in the brig was essentially the destruction of a human being’s brain….His personality was deconstructed and reformed.”

This, it seems, is a case in which real life has imitated art – with one glaring difference. In the movie, no one is accountable although the “bad guys” lose and justice is done.

In real life, no one is accountable either. But both Jose Padilla and justice lose.

(The full transcript of the interview with Dr. Hegarty, “EXCLUSIVE: An Inside Look at How U.S. Interrogators Destroyed the Mind of Jose Padilla” is on line at


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